I am sure that everyone is familiar with the battle of little Big horn and what has been coined “Custer’s last stand”. It is probably one of the most analyzed battles in American military history. Still, even with that being said, there are important lessons to be taken from it that are relevant today.
It is a given that Custer’s 7th cavalry was vastly out numbered as they took to the field. Modern estimates place the number of Lakota and other warriors at between 1500 and 1800 men. The U.S. cavalry on the other hand, totaled 879 including Custer’s contingent of 700 troops. All told, the U.S. troops, based on varying estimates would be outnumbered 2-3 to 1.
I know that those don’t sound like good odds, but here’s the rub; They were expecting to be outnumbered.
The cavalry had estimated that they would be facing up to 1500 warriors led by Sitting Bull. Even with this numerical advantage on the native’s side, Custer turned down another contingent of Calvary and a number of Gatling guns. He was supremely confident that he could overcome any number that he encountered because of superior firepower. He was so confident in fact, that he had no qualms about splitting his force into 3 divisions when he attacked.
I guess that right about now lesson number 1 is becoming obvious; Don’t be over confident. A battle is fluid and dynamic and the results can never be entirely calculated ahead of time. Never assume that you are better than your enemy and that victory will be a result of just that.
Yes, I know that lesson #1 is lame and obvious but I do have some better material for the next one. Here is how the whole battle unfolded at the beginning:
“Lt. Colonel George A. Custer’s field strategy was designed to engage noncombatants at the encampments at the Battle of the Little Big Horn, so as to capture women, children, the elderly or disabled :297 to serve as hostages and human shields. Custer’s battalions were poised to “ride into the camp and secure noncombatant hostages” and “forc[e] the warriors to surrender”. Author Evan S. Connell observed that if Custer could occupy the village before widespread resistance developed, the Sioux and Cheyenne warriors “would be obliged to surrender, because if they started to fight, they would be shooting their own families.”:312
Custer asserted in his book My Life on the Plains, published just two years before the Battle of the Little Big Horn, that:
“Indians contemplating a battle, either offensive or defensive, are always anxious to have their women and children removed from all danger…For this reason I decided to locate our [military] camp as close as convenient to [Chief Black Kettle’s Cheyenne] village, knowing that the close proximity of their women and children, and their necessary exposure in case of conflict, would operate as a powerful argument in favor of peace, when the question of peace or war came to be discussed.”[
But in reality this is what actually transpired when the force that was led by Major Reno came upon the village:
“He ordered his troopers to dismount and deploy in a skirmish line, according to standard army doctrine. In this formation, every fourth trooper held the horses for the troopers in firing position, with five to ten yards separating each trooper, officers to their rear and troopers with horses behind the officers. This formation reduced Reno’s firepower by 25 percent. As Reno’s men fired into the village and killed, by some accounts, several wives and children of the Sioux leader, Chief Gall (in Lakota, Phizí), mounted warriors began streaming out to meet the attack”
That’s right, instead of positioning and capturing, Reno’s troops opened fire into the village killing women and children. The response was instantaneous and over whelming and Reno and his men had to make a hasty and disorganized retreat.
And here is lesson number 2: Never judge what the response of a person or people is going to be when an action you impose on them ignites their sense of outrage.
Custer and his men were not new at fighting Indians and had always in the past succeeded though superior firepower and an effective strategy to use it. But this time it was different; their foe did not fear their weapons. Eyewitness accounts from the battle field attest to the fact that all 3 of Custer’s contingents were met by charge after charge of enraged warriors.
They had gone past caring and now were intent on nothing more than over whelming and killing. It is kind of like what happened in Ireland on bloody Sunday; the response to death and tyranny became rage instead of fear. After driving Reno’s men out of the village and across the river they engaged Custer in a series of running battles that would ultimately end in the death of all U.S troops involved.
Now here is lesson number 3: Better is not always better. Something that you view as inferior may actually give you a tactical advantage if used correctly. Yes, I know that most of us would like to have stinger missiles and so would have the Sioux, but that’s not happening.
Instead, what seemed at outset to be a distinct disadvantage for the indians actually turned out to their benefit; The lowly bow and arrow. As the battle progressed Custer made a series of retreats that eventually took him to the high ground on what is known as Custer hill. At the top of the hill Custer ordered all of the horses to be shot and used for cover. The rest of the troops took cover in a series of ravines that run along and down the hill.
With that positioning Custer and his men were pretty well dug in against conventional fire. The only slight problem is that bows can shoot over things. So, if you happen to be hiding behind something, you are screwed when the arrows start to rain down on you.
Would the Indians have prevailed without the bows? Yes, they would have, but the casualties would have been much higher without them. Their outdated technology saved them a bunch of grief and expedited the end of the battle.
So in the end, it would seem that if we try to think outside of the box and utilize what assets we have, that if used properly, they might actually give us an advantage. Okay, I will give you the fact that they have apples, but hey, I’ve got me some oranges.
Drone strike anyone?